Cambodia Weekly Rewind 7 & 8

Two months, eight weeks, 62 days… When I first arrived, I wondered how I would make it through the first two days, and now after two months, I find it hard to comprehend leaving Cambodia. While at times I long for the comforts of home, and more than anything a hug from my mom, the idea of actually leaving and return to a life of normalcy, in comparison to the adventurous lifestyle I live here, feels strange. I am not afraid or ashamed to admit that I struggle with Cambodia at times, often wishing it was not quite so hot or the floors were not quite so dirty. But after two months of slowly letting everything sink in and allowing myself to adjust to the culture, I have a slight inkling that it will be my home that feels foreign when I return.

The Highs

So many incredible things have happened over the past two weeks, but by far the best thing was receiving a care package from my grandma. Of course I love my grandma to the moon and back already, but after opening a package to reveal not just the chap stick, bug bite cream, and vitamins I felt so lucky to have her send me, but also cookies, chocolate, granola bars, and other snacks… I nearly burst into tears. I feel so very lucky and grateful to have such a wonderful grandma. My grandma, or Nini as I call her, has always spoiled me rotten and been the absolute best to me. She is such an amazing person, and inspires me so much with her travels and her attitude towards life. And since I know she reads these posts, I would just like to say again, thank you so much Nini. I love you, and I’m munching on the ginger snaps you sent me as I write this. IMG_3117.jpg

Speaking of food, eating lunch at the Daughter’s of Cambodia Cafe was also a memorable event of the past two weeks. Last Saturday, Laura, Rebecca, and I treated ourselves to a lunch out along the riverside after a week of hard work. The Daughter’s of Cambodia Cafe is both a cafe and a NGO. All the staff members are survivors of human trafficking, and work in the cafe to learn professional skills so that they may change their lives. The mission of the cafe is inspiring, and it was a humbling experience to be surrounded by young women (and men) who had survived such tragedy in their lives. Of course, the food was also delicious, and I enjoyed eating a tasty lunch while looking out at a gorgeous view of the riverside.

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The unreal view from the Daughters of Cambodia cafe

To top off my seventh week in Cambodia, I went to see Beauty and the Beast at the cinema. It left me speechless and weeping. While I do like the original Beauty and the Beast, I must admit that it is not my favorite Disney film and I never quite understood everyone’s obsession with it. However I love Emma Watson, and live action remakes of Disney films in general, so naturally I knew I would be seeing this film no matter what. I am so glad that I did! Emma Watson’s portrayal of Belle was amazing. She was confident, empowering, and such a good representation of all Belle’s good qualities. The cinematography of the movie was beautiful as well, and it was a sheer joy to watch. I do not want to give away any spoilers, so I won’t say anything more about the film, other than to say that I recommend everyone to see it.

Moving into the eighth week, as I promised myself, I started riding a bike to work! Riding my bike is exciting and sweaty. I love getting that little bit of extra exercise in the day, even if it comes with a back drenched in sweat and smog in my eyes from all the traffic. My daily commute is a bit stressful, as I cross many of the main roads of Phnom Penh. Since traffic laws do not really exist in practice here, it makes for a hectic ride, but one that I am getting more and more used to each passing day. I must admit, I do miss how when I took a tuk tuk to work, I arrived looking and feeling fresh. However, saving $5 a day by riding my bike is worth looking a bit disheveled.

The Lows

While the past two weeks boasted mostly exciting things, a few unfortunate events happened as well. Last week, I said goodbye to my friend Rebecca who had been volunteering with me at YCC. I got quite emotional saying goodbye, trying very hard to fight back tears and maintain my composure, which if you know me, I am not very good at doing. Rebecca is such a wonderful human being. She is funny, kind, and I appreciated her friendship so much over the weeks that I got to know her. With her gone, it also means that I am now alone at YCC. Being the only foreigner in the office is a bit unnerving. While my coworkers are nice, they rarely talk to me despite my attempts at small talk, which has meant quiet days and a sense of loneliness in the office. It has left me feeling a little bit unsteady with my placement, and at times I do find myself wishing that I was back teaching or somewhere else where I had someone to talk to during the day. However I know that this is just a temporary emotion, and that I do love my work. Everything has a way of working itself out, and I am sure things will get better after a while.

Another sad moment of the past two weeks was finishing my book The Goldfinch. For the past few weeks, I have been obsessed with this book, reading it as if it were a drug and I was the addict. As I mentioned in my last rewind post, the book is truly a work of art, with sentences that will captivate you and swallow you whole. Upon finishing this book, I cried. I cried because the book was so incredible that I was overcome with emotions, and I cried because I could not bear the fact that it was over. It was such an epic tale told so beautifully, and it had consumed me so fully that I did not want it to end.

The Emotions

At the beginning of this two week period, I felt very uncertain. My battle with uncertainty has been a reoccurring theme throughout my entire two months in Cambodia. I can feel on top of the world one moment, and in a bubble of anxiety the next. Most of it stems from the fact that I signed myself up for such a long stint of time here. Even in the moments where I love Cambodia, the fact that I might have four more months volunteering in the country feels quite overwhelming. I am not sure why this is exactly, and perhaps not knowing why I am having this struggle is the most unnerving aspect of my emotions of all. It makes me feel a bit like an impostor.

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At least they still like me… 

However, I know that is foolish to think like this. Of course I am not an impostor, I have already been volunteering in Cambodia for two months! I have traveled, I have volunteered, I have adventured; I am the embodiment of the travelsmith that I am and aspire to be. Perhaps I simply need to stop fighting this emotion, and embrace it instead. It is okay to feel unsure, to feel uncomfortable at times. I do not need to doubt myself and think it is the foreignness of Cambodia causing this, as I have certainly felt similar emotions back at home. While I was in university I often felt incredibly unsure of myself and where my life was going. The same feeling crept up and overwhelmed me when I was working at my previous job, and it was that feeling that prompted me to come to Cambodia in the first place. There is nothing wrong with having emotions of uncertainty or anxiety, so long as I can stay afloat above them and prevent them from consuming me whole. And so that will be my goal: to recognize the emotion, but take hold of it and have command over it, and not let it control me.

The Forthcoming

Perhaps the most exciting thing coming up in the next few weeks is the arrival of my parents! Words cannot describe how happy I am that my mom and dad will be coming to visit me for a week. I still get choked up thinking about it. While, thanks to technology, I have been able to keep in good contact with my family, I still miss them terribly. I am very close with my family, especially my parents, and being away from them this long has definitely taken a toll on my emotional wellbeing. In two weeks, Mama and Papa Travelsmith will be landing in Phnom Penh international airport, and a week of sight seeing, eating, and general merriment will commence. Needless to say, I shall be a very happy travelsmith in the weeks to come.

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I cannot wait to see two of my favorite people!

In addition to the arrival of my parents, starting tomorrow a new volunteer will be coming to YCC for two weeks. I am so happy at the prospect of not being the only foreigner in the office. While my coworkers are nice enough, I do often feel outnumbered and a bit outcasted, so having a fellow native English speaker to chat to will be nice. I met the volunteer yesterday, and she seems very friendly and I think we will get along great. She also just of happens to live a few hours away from where I do back in California! What are the chances of that?

And finally, the next thing coming up will be some new blog posts about my travels to Kampot and Kep. This past weekend, my friend Laura and I went to Kampot and Kep, and it was the best thing I have done in Cambodia so far. We ate delicious foods, swam in a river, and rode a motorbike up a mountain. I won’t say anymore than that, but will just leave you with a picture of this view to give an idea of how incredible my weekend was. Be sure to keep an eye out for that blog post.IMG_3263.JPG

With that, two months in Cambodia has passed. The time has felt both fast and slow at the same time. While I cannot believe that it has already been two months, at times I also feel like, how has it only been two months. So much has happened, from personal growth to actual events, that I feel like time has truly become relative. My life in Cambodia almost feels like a bubble, where I am slightly cut off from reality and the rest of the world. I am intrigued to see how my remaining time here will feel. Will it fly by? Or will it feel like it is barely passing? Only time will tell…

Cheers,

The Travelsmith

Dear America, I’m Still Hungry

Dear America,

About a year and a half ago, I confessed my love for your food. After months of stuffing my face with Scottish pastries, my stomach began to long for the sweet treats of home. I yearned for the processed, sugary goodness of hazelnut coffee creamer and other delicacies, promising that if I could taste them one more time, I would never take them for granted again.

When I returned home, I gratefully ate and drank everything that I missed. I attempted to truly appreciate the foods my country offered, whether stereotypically American or not. Over the course of about a year, I enjoyed all the flavors of home.

And now America, once again I find myself thousands of miles away from you and I once again long for your food. For two months, I consumed rice, sometimes noodles, and various vegetable dishes. Some days I happily ate this concoctions, while other days I only ate to keep myself from being hungry. While I am truly grateful for the opportunity to eat each day, and even more thankful to be in a volunteer program where my meals are provided for me, I must admit, I miss the food from back home.

I miss coffee. While each morning I sweat over a hot cup, it is a sad instant packet mixture consistently of sugar, powered milk, and a mere “18%” coffee – What does that even mean? I long for the strong roasts of home, powerful enough to give me energy even after the most sleepless nights. The thought of getting to mix a little hazelnut creamer in my coffee again is almost enough to make me want to go home this instant… Yes, I addiction and need for it is that strong.

I miss cheese. Yes, this lactose intolerant traveler longs for something cheesy. It is true, back home I tried my best to stay away from all things cheddar and delicious. However, after two months without even the chance to slip up, I find myself drooling over pictures of pizza, feeling false hunger at the thought of cheese toast! I cannot even begin to describe what I would do for a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Of course, if I really wanted something I could go for a meal out and order it… But the sheer lack of anything cheesy available on a day to day, while good for my allergy, creates a desperation for it that I have never known before.

I miss pancakes. True, I did not eat pancakes all the time back home. However anyone who knows me will attest to my love for them. I am always down for a run to IHOP, whether for breakfast, a snack, lunch, dinner, after dinner… There is no wrong time to enjoy a stack of buttermilk pancakes. Real, fluffy, buttery pancakes. While there is nothing wrong with a crepe, calling it a pancake is a cruel lie.

I miss carbs that are not white rice. Sweet potatoes, pasta, regular potatoes, bagels, oatmeal… The list goes on and on. Back home, I survive on a diet that consists mainly of sweet potatoes and oatmeal. The sudden removal of them from my life definitely gave me withdrawal syndromes. I dream about eating oatmeal, I have wild fantasies about finding sweet potatoes at a market and buying all of them… Such a weird thing to miss I know, but I miss it all the same.

So much of my cravings and my newfound revulsion towards rice derives from the nature of my time here. Being in a volunteer program with a rotating schedule of set meals has created repetition and monotony. Though at home I typically eat the same thing everyday, it is much easier to do this when they are my favorite foods rather than ones with unknown vegetables and mystery meats.

The flavors of Cambodia are ones I am grateful to have had the opportunity to taste. I have truly enjoyed sipping on Mango smoothies and sweating over curries. While I have not yet experienced the joy of eating anything that was wrapped in a banana leaf as promised by my grandmother, I know that when that day comes, I will be thankful for it as well.

However, I still long for the smells and tastes of food from home. Months still stand between me and you, America, but know that when I return, I will return hungry and ready to eat.

Forever Yours,

The Hungry Travelsmith

Les Restaurants Des Enfants

A few times on my blog, I mentioned my going to a childcare placement on my Saturday mornings. I spoke about it during my first weekly rewind, noting it as an incredible experience that I promised to elaborate on later. The following Saturday I went there again, and explained my frustration and complicated feelings about watching donors unevenly distribute shoes to the children there. And while now I do not always mention it in my weekly rewind posts, I still go there from time to time, wanting to again volunteer with a truly noble cause.

IMG_2913A country with extreme levels of poverty and wealth inequality, too often children in Cambodia are hungry and malnourished. Without proper nourishment, children become vulnerable to developmental problems and poor health. In a desperation to find food, children in these circumstances may beg on the streets or scavenge through garbage piles to find something to eat.

Les Restaurants Des Enfants (LRDE) began in 2010 with a simple, but honorable mission: to provide free food to Cambodian children in need. It provides daily hot meals, in addition to a place where children can be showered, get haircuts, and find clean clothes if needed. While a small staff keeps the operation running, it welcomes the support of volunteers to come and help serve food, wash, and play with the children.

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LRDE runs largely off donations and the support of volunteers. With less than one dollar, it is able to feed one child and provide it with the nutrition and energy needed to start the day clean, with a full belly, and a strong spirit. Over the past few years, it has given more than four hundred thousand meals to the children of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The time I spent volunteering there, I peeled cucumbers, chopped meat, served rice, poured soup, played basketball, chased smiling little girls, and received more hugs than I can count. I was welcomed by the staff and children alike, overwhelmed by the amount of kindness and love given away from people who barely knew me and who had so little.

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Whether to somehow reach someone with the ability to donate, or simple to spread the word, I wanted to share my experiences at LRDE to do what I can to help raise more awareness about this incredible cause. If you would like to know more about how you can help, please check out the LRDE website and Facebook, or feel free to contact me for more information.

Cheers,

The Travelsmith

Cambodia Weekly Rewind 5 & 6

The past two weeks came and went so quickly that, despite all my good intentions, I failed to post about their events in a timely manner. I would apologize, but as I continually mention when moments such as these happen; I would rather live and experience everything going on around me, than pause to write about them. Sorry if that is not exactly what you, dear reader, wanted to hear. However, look on the bright side: the post is here! Relax, be merry, and let your eyes feast upon the following slew of words that are my fifth and sixth week in the Kingdom of Wonder.

The Highs

Where do I even begin? What a stupid question. Seeing the elephants in Mondulkiri; obviously one of the most incredible moments in the past two weeks. While I originally held some reservations against standing face to face with the magnificent creatures, afraid of being squashed or something else ridiculous in hindsight, I found myself staring at them in awe. No reason to be afraid and nothing but excitement coursing through my veins. I felt like an explorer, like a professional travel writer from National Geographic, like someone whose wildest dreams just came true! I wrote an entire blog post dedicated to my sheer bliss from seeing the elephants, so take a look at that if you somehow missed it.

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Fulfilling childhood dreams

Apart from walking with my favorite animal in all the world, staying at the Nature Lodge in Mondulkiri was also fantastic. For quite some time, the idea of sleeping over in a tree house seemed magical and peaceful. I thought it would be something far out of reach, as many of the tree house  vacation homes nearby me in California were too far out of budget. However, with Cambodia’s low cost of living I could finally live out another dream of mine. Sleeping in a “tree house,” (more a jungle bungalow than a tree house to be honest, but it felt enough lie a tree house to me) was relaxing and whimsical. I felt connected with the nature surrounding me, and it was beyond nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of Phnom Penh. Sitting with my book in a hammock, listening to cicadas and crickets; it was truly wonderful. IMG_2983

Rewinding back from the weekend adventures, this week I also began volunteering at my new NGO placement! I will admit, I was very nervous to begin volunteering there. While I knew that I wanted to volunteer with NGOs, they were supposed to be my career goals after all, that gave some sort of odd pressure. What if I didn’t like it? Would that put my entire life’s purpose into question? Luckily, so far I have not had to worry about these questions, as I have really enjoyed volunteering. The NGO I am placed with is called Youth Council of Cambodia, or YCC, and they work to empower youth and encourage them to participate in the advocation of democracy, good governance, human rights and other issues for the peaceful and sustainable development of Cambodia. Being part of this organization is inspiring and educational. I am learning about issues of youth development, community building, and politics. Already, I have been entrusted with writing proposals for funding and gathering information on ongoing projects. I not only feel useful, but like I am using my strengths and doing something that I am good at and enjoy. I am so excited to see what the next months of working there will bring, and what else I can contribute to the organizations mission.

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Getting ready to walk into another day of NGO volunteering

Finally, like a few weeks ago, a book must be included in the highs of this week. For the past two weeks or so, I have been obsessively reading and listening to The Goldfinch on Kindle. From the first few sentences, I was hooked, captivated by the intricately crafted sentences and the hauntingly beautiful descriptions. Everything about the book is incredible, the plot, the characters, everything. The entire six hour bus ride to Mondulkiri and the entire bus ride back, I listening to the book, finding myself almost disappointed when the bus came to a stop and I was forced back into reality. This is one of those books that I cannot read fast enough, but I am dreading finishing because I can’t imagine not reading it everyday. I would highly recommend it to anyone. It will enthrall you, mesmerize you, make you laugh, make you cry; it is quite possibly one of the best books I have ever read.

The Lows

Fortunately, not many unfortunate things occurred these past two weeks. The hardest thing was saying goodbye to many of the volunteers. As I write this, new volunteers are arriving to the house, and only two people remain from the ones I originally started this journey with. It presents me with a hard realization, that in another few weeks time, everyone who was here when I first arrived will be gone. The prospect of having to make new friends feels daunting, especially with most volunteers only staying for short periods of time. While I would still love to make friends, the lifestyles of a short and long term volunteer are very different. Two or three weekers can afford to go out most nights, treat themselves to massages and nice dinners, while I must be budget conscious and more frequently opt for nights in. Hopefully a few people staying for longer periods of time will surface and we can become friends, otherwise I’ll be a bit of a lonely Travelsmith in the weeks to come.

The Emotions

For the majority of the past two weeks, I have felt content in the most beautiful way. I am settling into my routine here and getting used to the daily life. Cambodia, despite its extreme foreignness, feels like home in some ways. Being here feels right, and I am reminded almost each day some way or another, that I made the right decision in coming here.

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Who wouldn’t want to be here?

Despite my contentedness, I have also been feeling a bit homesick lately. Cambodia is beginning to feel like a home, but I still long for the comforts of my Northern California residence. I miss my own bed, a clean floor, sweet potatoes, and watching TV shows at night with my family and a cup of tea. The idea of eighteen more weeks here is exciting, however at times, it feels a little daunting. But when these thoughts strike me, I try to do no more than simply acknowledge them, because I know they are few and fleeting. More than anything, I want to enjoy my time here. The chance to go home will always be there, but to explore and travel and, most importantly, be in CAMBODIA; this is an opportunity that exists in the now.

The Forthcoming

While I do not have many travel plans or exciting adventures in mind for the upcoming weeks, I am planning on changing up my day to day. How you ask? Next week I plan on purchasing a bike. Inspired by my friend Laura, and wanting to save the $25 a week a tuk tuk cost me, I want to try biking to my placement each day. Over the weekend, I tested it out, and while slightly terrifying trying to navigate through the heat and the traffic, the journey was simply and took about twenty minutes. With bikes costing around $40 for a nice one, it seems worth the investment. And why not give myself a chance to get some exercise to consume extra smoothies in return?

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Think of all the smoothies I could buy with an extra $25 a week

Six weeks. Six weeks have passed. It seems short and long all at the same time. Being in Cambodia so far has been a blessing, an incredible gift, and I cannot wait to see what will come in the time I have left here. I am ready to continue to open myself to opportunities, to adventures, to learning. And moreover, I am ready to give more of myself and open myself up to everyone and everything that comes my way.

Cheers,

The Travelsmith

 

The Elephant in the Room

My heart pounded so hard I thought it would burst out of my chest. I could feel my palms growing cold with sweat, and my feet suddenly refused to move and remained anchored to the jungle floor. A wave of shock and disbelief washed over me, and I tried desperately to grasp hold of some remnant of reality in this new, dream-like world. Everyone around me seemed frozen in similar states of awe and incredulity, mouths gaping open with nothing but weak air pouring out; all staring in complete bewilderment at the creature in front of us: an elephant.

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The way we all gawked and approached it doubtfully, it might as well be a dragon or some other fantastical animal standing no more than a few feet away. I felt a surge of uncertainty course throughout my body, almost tempting me to run away. Then just as suddenly as the elephant appeared, my childish excitement and love for these magnificent beings returned, and my face broke into a foolish and wide smile.

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If someone told me that at some point in my lifetime I would be face to face with an elephant, I would not have doubted it. Since third grade, and possibly before though I don’t remember, I obsessed over them. Any classroom report or assignment, or even drawing, related to animals prompted me to spend hours researching elephants. I knew what they liked to eat, where they lived, the different breeds, life spans, and mannerisms. For years, my room collected dust from shelves and dressers covered in random elephant themed toys and nicknacks, courtesy of my obsessive and somewhat frivolous “elephant collection.” I spent hours practicing and perfecting my ability to micmic an elephant sound, priding myself on it and demonstrating it to my friends and classmates.

Elephants fascinated me. Why though, I am not sure. Though interesting, they were not a particularly cute animal that would attract the attention of an adolescent girl. Nor were they as popular as other exotic animals like cheetahs or dolphins; favorites among many of my classmates. However there was something about their habits that drew me in and caused me to read about them for hours. Their need for communication and closeness with each other, the debated ability to feel emotions, the myth that “an elephant never forgets;” there was something about them that captivated my attention.

When I learned about the opportunity to not just see, but really interact with an elephant in Mondulkiri, Cambodia, I knew I would go. For years I toyed with the idea of one day going on an African Safari to hopefully catch a glimpse of one. Now the chance to be face to face with an elephant was within reach, and I grasped for it. Carefully planning a trip to Mondulkiri for a weekend with some volunteer friends, I eagerly waited for my childhood dreams (obsessions) to come true.

However, on the bumpy and hellish six hour bus ride to Mondulkiri, a pit of anxiety grew and twisted in my stomach. I would be staying in the “jungle” for three days and two nights, sleeping in what essentially looked like a tree house cabin, and not in the glamorous way. There would be insects, a higher risk of malaria, and who knows what else. I nervously forced crackers and pieces of dried mango down my throat while these thoughts swam and festered in my mind. Seeing an elephant seemed like a dream come true at the time, but what would reality hold.  After being friendlily teased that I would be the one to freak out and refuse to get near the elephant, doubt and horror consumed me. Could I really handle touching an elephant? Dogs too often frightened me; what the hell would I do with a ten thousand pound beast? 

I pushed the thoughts out of my mind temporarily, drowning out the uneasy feeling in my stomach with sugary road snacks until we arrived in Mondulkiri. All too excited to get off the demon bus, Rebecca, Laura, Elena, and I began the short trek to our accommodation.IMG_3070

When we arrived, I instantly felt foolish for wondering how I would “survive” in the supposedly basic room. Our rooms were not as lavish as say the tree houses at Chewton Glen, but they looked incredible and made me feel almost like I was living a very weak enactment of The Swiss Family Robinsons. No doubt about it, I would not just survive but thrive in this beautiful bungalow. The entire atmosphere at the Nature Lodge, our accomodation, complimented our stay in Mondulkiri. It’s treehouse environment, secludedness, horses and cows roaming about the property; everything about it tied with closer with the nature and outdoors, a welcomed difference after the parties and chaos of weekends pastIMG_2980IMG_2979IMG_2983

But even after an afternoon of tranquility and a good night’s sleep, I awoke the next morning with my stomach in knots. I dressed, packed my bag, ate breakfast, and waited, a mess of nerves, for our guide to pick us up and begin our adventure.

I was happy and excited, no doubt about that, as we rode in the bed of a truck up a winding and dusty road. My face was full of smiles and laughs as we trekked deeper into the jungle to meet the founder of the project and learn more about what the Mondulkiri Project was all about. I listened intently and politely, as he explained his desires to prevent elephants from being forced in labor that broke their spirits and caused them to die young. I admired his determinism and innovation as he shared he also wanted to use the project to build tourism in Mondulkiri, to help the people there and bolster the local economy. However, even with all the new information, I still felt uneasy and worried; the fear that I would not be able to handle seeing an elephant in real life perverting my thoughts. IMG_3091IMG_3001

When we suddenly got up to leave and begin the trek down (deeper into the Heart of Darkness reminiscent jungle my worried mind associated it with) and I realized there was no turning back now, I swallowed hard and felt thankful that everyone was sweating from the heat, giving my extreme nervousness a disguise. Holding my portion of bananas, I waited anxiously. And then everything changed.

Upon seeing the elephant, all the fears and anxieties and uncertainties drained from my mind, forced out and replaced by feelings of sheer joy and enthusiasm. I smiled, feeling spellbound and enthralled as I timidly reached out my banana filled hand and carefully placed it into the elephants mouth. Nothing could possibly take away the amount of happiness I felt in that moment, as if it was a gift, my own personal treasure to cherish forever. The high of that moment continued to roll on, as I met a second and a third elephant, each one more friendly and eager to be fed than the last. There was no fear, no worry, as I knew the mannerisms of these creatures. They were typically gentle, not violent unless threatened, and utterly fantastic. IMG_3036IMG_3046

How could I have possibly let so much terror and worry consume my mind before? Now confident and beaming, the prospect of ever being frightened by these animals seemed unnecessarily foolish. Yes they were large and wild beasts, but they were not really beasts at all. They moved with a certain gracefulness despite their thumps, appearing more like whimsical, if giant, dancers rather than monstrous things clamoring about.

IMG_3078IMG_3095I felt like a character in a movie as we followed the elephants through the trees, and watched them drink water and eat bamboo. I pinched myself, sure I was dreaming, before stepping into a pool of water and watching as the elephants joined us, trunks outstretched for more bananas as we tried in vain to wash them. I was on cloud nine, in heaven, living out my wildest dreams!

When the time came to bid my new friends goodbye, I felt sad but grateful. I had been given the most wonderful gift of an experience, something that I would hold dear in my memories forever. As we rode back along the dusty rode, returning to our accomodation, I knew this would be a day that I, like an elephant, would never forget.

Cheers,

The Travelsmith

 

A Letter to my Students

Dear Students,

Though our time together came to close, the four weeks you gave me will always be unforgettable. From the moment I first met you, all eighty of you, running towards me on that fateful February day, I knew that this would be an incredible experience. Excited but intimidated, I waved and smiled and said my timid “sua-sdey,” and embraced all your sweaty hugs and sticky high fives. Though I agreed to teach the elementary school students without realizing what it meant, I know now it was meant to be.img_2546

For four weeks I raced between your four different classrooms, trying to balance four sets of four lessons plans following two different curriculums per week. I felt stressed and at my wits end, waking up early in the morning to research ESL teaching techniques and invent ways to develop the “Art through English” curriculum the school director sprung on me last minute. I panicked on how to make a lesson on the letter “I” last an hour, and banged my head against the wall trying to figure out how to make teaching personal pronouns interesting but also clear. You all watched me and struggled with me that first week, when I showed up wearing my best attempt at a brave face that we could both see through.

It took a while before things became easier. While they were never truly easy, they eventually grew less difficult. Those first few weeks, standing at the front of the class and looking at all of your adorable but expectant faces staring back at me made me want to cry and run back home. My voice rang out with a fake confidence, adopting the “don’t let them see you sweat” mindset my dad once taught me. But I was sweating, and you could see it. From both the heat and my nerves, my attempts to hide my initial discomfort were in vain.

Teaching was not completely foreign to me. I tutored in high school, teaching Spanish to elementary school students. I taught a computer skills class in university. I knew how to plan lessons, explain subjects, and at the very least, stand up at the front of a room and talk. But I was not ready for the other side of things. The constant fight for classroom management, the battle between being a likable but also realistic teacher, and the continual strain on my voice from constantly calling out “Keep Silent” and “Listen, copy down.” These were things I was not used to, and did not expect.

You all tested me. You tried my patience, my optimism, and my stubborn determinism. It wavered at times, unfortunately a lot of the time, but I would like to think it was not lost completely. For through all the struggles, at the end of the day, we made it through each lesson, and for how much I vented at the end of the day to blow off steam, I always came back in the morning.img_2674

We surprised each other, I think, with our out of the ordinary qualities. You were used to teachers that came and left after two weeks. You did not expect me to stick around, to stick to the curriculum, or to want to teach you English. My formal lesson plans and insistence on the occasional grammar exercises, rather than playing games all class for an hour, threw you off at first. But you shocked me as well. The initial fight you all put up over completing your assignments shocked me. I did not anticipate spending the majority of our time in class together reasoning with you all to complete the sentences, or having to explain why it did not matter when I refused to write “very good” and “100/100” every time after you copied down the word “nose” five times.

Discrepancies between our educational systems were not something I was foolish enough to think did not exists; however, I did not imagine that I would be stepping foot into anything quite like this. Explaining what a “spelling test” was, trying to teach the concept of answering a question rather than repeating it; it was hard for me to believe that your Cambodian English teachers had not covered this information with you all, especially if I was expected to teach it. My role as a volunteer English teacher was meant to be a “co-teacher,” a supplement to English you were already learning. Discovering that was not the case threw me through a loop, and forced me back to square one.

I was frustrated. Not just for me, but also for you. I cared about you all, and I wanted you to learn. What use were my lessons if you did not understand them?

But soon, despite my feelings of uselessness and my tears, and we found our rhythm. You learned English, and I learned how to teach it to you. All our initial stand offs faded away. When I walked into the classroom, we both smiled and took a deep breath, ready to get through the next hour together. It was no longer an impossible or daunting task, but our adventure to accomplish together.

In first grade we learned the alphabet, from letter “I” to letter “O.” We repeated after me, we traced, and we copied. We drew pictures of our families and animals, crowded around too small desks with melting crayons.img_2875

In second grade, we learned words. We took spelling tests, wrote new vocabulary, and tested our memories. We played hangman, learned about sports, and talked about the importance of honesty and not cheating.img_2886

In third, fourth, and fifth grade we learned about grammar. We struggled with personal pronouns and attempted to learn prepositional phrases. We sang songs about Princess Pat and camels, and laughed about Peter Piper and his patch of pickled peppers.img_2895

For all the stresses of our days, every hour ended in accomplishments and happy faces. It ended with hugs and smiles, and races to erase the whiteboard. It ended with staring contests, taking selfies, and playing patty cake.

It ended much too quickly. Four weeks flew by. But I know we are both going into beautiful and transformative phases of our lives. You all will continue to learn and grow so much. I saw what you are capable of, you have the ability to soak up information like sponges when you want to. If you let yourselves, you will truly go far with your English, and whatever else. For whatever it is worth, teacher believes in you.img_2902

Thank you my students, for everything you gave me. I tried to give you all of me, but in reality I gained all of you. Your smiles, your hugs, your love: I will never forget you, my eighty new little brothers and sisters and babies. For every day when you ended class with “I love you,” I was falling in love with all of you too.

Love,

Teacher Myriah

 

Cambodia Weekly Rewind 4

How quickly time flies! I can hardly believe that four weeks, one whole month, have past since I first stepped foot in the Kingdom of Wonder. When I first arrived, I wanted to run home unapologetically. Now, the idea of leaving in five months seems nearly impossible.

After being in Cambodia for one month, I have settled into my routine here and grown comfortable with my new lifestyle. Realizing how much and how well I have grown here is empowering, and makes me feel like I am truly embracing my experience. I do not just feel like I am living an incredible life, but the life I was born to live. I am coming into myself, and transforming back into a person that I can identify with. When I look in the mirror, I recognize the person staring back at me. After months of feeling lost, I cannot stress how important and remarkable that feels.

But once again I have spent long enough boasting about my personal revelations, and so on to the weekly rewind. I wanted to try something a little different for this week’s post, in terms of format. Let me know in the comments below which format you prefer.

The Highs

This week provided many incredible moments. Being my last week teaching, I strove to make the most of my remaining time with my students. I sang songs in class every day, entertained them with games, but also kept to the curriculum and included English grammar activities amongst our fun. My students loved it. Every day when I walked into the classroom, they greeted me with smiles and eagerly asked, “Teacher, Alice the Camel?” or “Teacher, we sing about the moose?” And when I replied we would sing after the lesson, they smiled in agreement and for the most part, cooperated in completing their work in order to reap the benefits of singing at the end. While this did not work with every student, and some put up quite a fight with me, not wanting to work and only sing, at the end of the week, I look at this as an accomplishment. Overall, I successfully bonded with my students.img_2902

Eighty students, over four grade levels, aged six to fourteen: I made an impression on them. They liked me, I like them, and we had fun. And even more than that, I loved teaching and I was good at it. One day while going through my lesson plan, one of the Cambodian teachers approached me and said, “You are doing well. The students understand you – you are a good teacher.” I could not conceal my smiles. I felt proud and happy. It took me four weeks, but I finally hacked teaching, even if at the tail end.

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It’s been an honor Happy School

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Until next time Grade 4/5

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My little ones from Grade 1

Delicious food also makes the cut for this week’s top moments. On Thursday, I went to Joma café with some friends and spent the evening eating cakes. Anyone who knows me is well aware of my obsession with plain white cake. I love it, and despite its simplicity, stubbornly believe it is the best cake flavor. So when I walked into Joma and my eyes found a slice of white cake calling my name, I am not ashamed to say I started to drool a little bit. There was no question that was the sweet treat I would be buying, and I happily savored every mouthful.img_2889

But the tasty treats did not end there. The following evening, finding ourselves activity less on a Friday night, we ventured out to Delikat Gelato. I shamelessly ordered a double scoop of gelato, and treated my taste buds to cheesecake and blueberry flavors, telling myself it was okay because I would workout the next day. Spoiler alert: I did not.

Slightly unrelated to the rest of the week’s events, another one of my favorite moments included finishing a book. For the past three weeks, I have slowly been making my way through The German Girl, a hauntingly beautiful story that details the lives of Jewish people in Berlin in 1939. The book was a page-turner, and I eagerly looked forward to reading it during my lunch break each afternoon and each night before I went to bed. Since I have wanted to get back into reading for pleasure for years now, having the time and motivation to do so feels incredible.

The week ended with a bang, creating a reenactment of the party night in Siem Reap. After volunteering at the restaurant Saturday morning, and spending that afternoon walking around Phnom Penh, my friends and I returned to the main part of the city in the evening to go out for drinks and dancing. I danced, I laughed, and I went home on tired feet.img_2950img_2957

The Lows

As wonderful as this week was, there were unfortunately some less than ideal moments sprinkled throughout it as well. For the most part I enjoyed teaching my students, but as I alluded to earlier, it was not all smooth sailing. Some of the students, interested only in playing and not working, refused to do their assignments and pouted instead of writing down simple sentences. They talked in class, shouted disruptive comments, and one student even made crude comments towards me. Taking a stand, I took matters into my own hands and decided to do some disciplining in class. I take my role as a teacher seriously, and while some of my fellow volunteer teachers rolled their eyes at me, I will not stand for students misbehaving in class. School is for learning and it is a privilege to be able to go to school. So many people lack the opportunity to receive an education, so being given the opportunity to receive one is something that should not be wasted; especially in Cambodia, where normally students must pay even to go to public school. When the country is riddled with poverty, this creates a large educational gap between the wealthy and the poor. The school I worked at provides free education to students from disadvantaged areas. They are receiving an education that would be impossible for them to obtain otherwise. I wanted to ensure that the students in my class that wanted to learn could; and this was not possible with the distracting behavior of unruly students.

So this happened…img_2887

Say what you will, I stand by it.

Saying goodbye to my students also put a slight damper on the week as well. While I made the most of the remaining time I had with them, it was still hard to say goodbye. While throughout the four weeks I struggled to find a balance and figure out how to teach four different grades, with students with different performance levels within each one, I still loved those little rascals. I will miss their smiles, their high fives, and their sweaty hugs. Receiving “goodbye” drawings and gifts from them on Friday took everything I had not to burst into tears in front of them. They are so kind and, for the most part, eager to learn. I wish them all the best in the future.

The Emotions

This week, as is probably evident by now, has been filled with conflicted emotions. I felt sad to leave my students, but happy for the time I spent with them. I felt guilty for wanting to switch volunteer placements, but also proud of myself for taking the initiative to ask for what I wanted.

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When your student offers to be your guide home, you accept

Too often, I force myself to take on more guilt than is truly necessary, feeling the need to make myself suffer when it is not justified or constructive. This week, I had to remind myself that I came to Cambodia with the vision of working for a NGO, and exploring the opportunity to experience first hand the type of work I wanted to commit my life to. There is no reason to feel guilty about wanting to expedite my doing that. When I applied to volunteer in Cambodia, I agreed to teach English, first and foremost, because I was told that there was no room to volunteer at a NGO until May. Upon discovering that this information was not true when I arrived, I wanted to transition back into the experience I originally hoped for myself, especially since I was made to believe something that was not true.

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to teach English. Since teaching was something I wanted to try one day anyway, having the chance to do so was truly wonderful. And I learned so much from it. I learned that I do enjoy teaching, despite its challenges, and it is something I could see myself doing again in the future. However, I do not need to feel guilty for wanting to stop teaching and instead do something that I have dreamed of doing. I spent the majority of my undergraduate years hoping and praying I would be able to use my International Relations degree to make a difference in the world and work abroad for an organization striving to do that as well. And now I have the opportunity to do so.

A bit of anxiety also crept its way into this week. Having always had a difficult time with change, I worried about my transition into working for the NGO. I knew I wanted to experience it, but worried it may not end up being what I hoped it would be like. At the end of the day, I reminded myself to keep an open mind. I am smart, competent, and hard working. Working in these types of organizations is not new to me. I know how to take initiative, do research, and ask for projects. Everything would be fine if I simply let myself believe it would be.

But mostly this week, I felt gratified. It took me four weeks to transform back into a person I recognized and loved. Four weeks, after months of despair, and almost a year of uncertainty. Returning to myself brought me the greatest satisfaction and confidence and love, and it is something I did. I initiated my metamorphosis. While I do not think it is totally complete yet, as I hope to continue to learn and grow, the stage I am at right now is brining me all kinds of joy.

The Forthcoming

Going into my fifth week in the Kingdom of Wonder, many new and exciting things are on the horizon. As I mentioned, I am starting a new volunteer placement where I will be at a local Cambodian NGO called Youth Council of Cambodia, or YCC. They strive to empower Cambodian youth through encouraging them to participate in the strengthening of democracy, human rights, and good governance of Cambodia for peaceful and sustainable development. I am excited to start working there, and to learn more about these issues in Cambodia and become part of their movement of change.

At the end of the week, I will also be once again venturing out of Phnom Penh. Some friends and I are planning on making our way to the Mondulkiri province, and participating in the Mondulkiri Project, which strives to protect forests for elephants and wildlife. We will trek through the jungles, swim with elephants, and wash them, being about these magnificent creatures while they are free from the unfortunate and often abusive tourist activities they were rescued from.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is my week in a nutshell. A whirlwind of emotions, a plethora of self-realizations and feelings of personal empowerment: one month in Cambodia has treated me well, who knows what the remaining five will bring.

Cheers,

The Travelsmith